Old Perth Observatory: where science organised a state

I visited Old Perth Observatory, located in King’s Park on Mt Eliza, a fabulous site with park and river views, in November 2011. The site is under the custodianship of the National Trust of Western Australia and the purpose of my visit was to see what remained of the Old Perth Observatory and look for evidence of the Astrographic Catalogue work as part of broader doctoral research for The University of Sydney Museum Studies Department.  I was treated to a behind the scenes and up the tower view by the CEO of the National Trust WA, Tom Perrigo, and the heritage officer, Dan Kloszer Skjold.

Toner Stevenson on top of the Tower of Old Perth Observatory Nov 2011
Fig 1: Toner Stevenson on top of the Tower of Old Perth Observatory Nov 2011

There is a fabulous 1896 image of the day the foundation stone for Perth Observatory was laid showing vigorous celebration and how important this scientific endeavour was to the colony. Even though Perth Observatory was completed in 1900, well after Sydney Observatory (1858), there are parallel histories.  Both were significant for establishing and maintaining order through carefully determining and communicating the time, both had important roles in land surveying, including determining State borders, in the early days of the colony. Like Sydney, Perth Observatory also had a period when buildings and instruments were removed from the site with the Astrographic dome demolished and relocated. This occurred in Perth in 1965 and in Sydney from 1982. The Government Astronomer’s residence and offices was one of three buildings on the site, it is the only one remaining.  This building provided luxurious accommodation for the astronomer and his family.  It has a curved balcony with sweeping views on the first floor, five bedrooms, two boudoirs, and a dressing room.  On the ground floor are several lobbies, a substantial kitchen and laundry, and separate toilets for the workers, servants and children. In the official work area, which is considerably smaller than the residence, there is an impressive room with bay windows for the Government astronomer’s office (Fig 6), a library and an office for the astronomers and where the computers, then humans, and clerk sat.  There is no evidence of telescopes in this building.

The first Director and Government astronomer was William Ernest Cooke, who was appointed by the first premier of Western Australia, Sir John Forrest in 1896.  Cooke energetically sought to meet the demands of the colonists who wanted to know things like the time and the weather.

This photograph taken around 1898 shows the three main buildings: the Transit Observatory (far left), the Astrographic building and dome (centre) and the administration office and house is the larger building. State Library of Western Australia 011494D.
Fig 2: This photograph taken around 1898 shows the three main buildings: the Transit Observatory (far left), the Astrographic building and dome (centre) and the administration office and house is the larger building. State Library of Western Australia 011494D.

To provide accurate time required setting up an observatory with a Transit telescope, and taking the advice offered by Cape Town astronomer David Gill for a shaded but airy structure, Cooke designed a Transit house that was a protective cover for the telescope very well suited to the Perth climate (Fig 2). The Transit telescope was installed in 1898 and an ingenious contraption was assembled to fire a small cannon signalling one o’clock to the growing city (Fig 3).  As reported in a previous blog post, there was also an electric signal sent to Fremantle Harbour so that the timeball, could be dropped there simultaneously, The one o’clock gun was replaced by a foghorn and then ceased altogether in the 1950s when the Observatory sent accurate time to the radio stations.


Drawing of Firing the One O’Clock gun
Fig 3: Firing the One O’Clock gun, a drawing in the State Library of Western Australia Collection.

Perth Observatory photographed a large section of the sky for the international project called the Astrographic Catalogue. Cooke had an Astrographic building constructed and purchased a Howard Grubb telescope with a photographic lens as specified for the Carte du Ciel and Astrographic Catalogue, so Perth was well prepared in 1900 when the Western Australian government agreed to take over the zone originally assigned to Rio de Janeiro. By January 1901 Cooke was ready to start photographing the stars and he regularly corresponded with H.C. Russell at Sydney Observatory. Russell had been involved in the Astrographic Catalogue from its very beginning in 1887.  Between 1908 and 1921 twenty four volumes of the Perth Catalogue were published by W.E. Cooke and H.B. Curlewis, with the last three catalogues published during H.S. Spigl’s directorship when the remaining glass plates, sent some years prior to Edinburgh for measuring, arrived back in Perth in 1953 (Utting, vol1:41). There is a wonderful image in the Powerhouse Museum collection showing the inside of Perth Astrographic dome and the Astrographic telescope .  The Astrographic telescope is now installed and operational at Perth Observatory Bickley where the original dome was placed on top of a new building.

Perth Observatory, photograph taken around 1901
Fig 4: Perth Observatory, photograph taken around 1901. Notice the instruments on top of the tower, and astrographic building courtesy Perth Observatory Collection.


Cooke called the tower on top of the main building the ‘anemometer tower’ (Utting, vol 1:97). While meteorology records for Perth date back to 1829, it was in 1898 that the anemometer (an instrument for measuring wind speed) was installed on top of the Perth Observatory tower.  Cooke established an extensive network of weather stations across WA. Recording and reporting the weather became the most publicly recognised activity on the site, although it was not under direct control of the astronomer after the Federal Bureau of Meteorology was established. However, for a considerable time the brothers Curlewis were in charge of both the Observatory and the state Bureau of Meteorology. In the 1980s the National Trust became custodians and the building, by then in very poor condition, was restored and re-opened in 1988.  An anemometer, that still looks very like the original one seen in old photographs, is stored in the tower.


Old Perth Observatory
Fig 5: Old Perth Observatory today. Note the generous balcony and tower. The Dumas building, left, was constructed after 1965 once the meteorology lawn, Transit building and Astrograph building were demolished. Photo T. Stevenson.

Timekeeping, meteorology, seismology, surveying and astronomy meant that the observatory and its scientific staff and equipment were all important to the governance of the colony.  This changed dramatically over the following century due to the Federation of science, a depression, two World Wars and the changes in state and federal government responsibilities.  Nonetheless this site still holds a remarkable history and one the National Trust is planning to make more public. There is a more detailed Perth Observatory history written by Wayne Moredoundt for the Heritage Council.


National Trust boardroom
Fig 6: Once the Government astronomer’s office, now the National Trust boardroom. Photo: T. Stevenson


9 responses to “Old Perth Observatory: where science organised a state

  • Was the 1 o’clock Gun really a cannon??? Our 97 year old friend played around the Observatory as a child and has explained to us how the explosion for the 1 o’clock sound was made .As kids they would stand near as possible to the explosion with fingers in their ears and saw it all .Our friend can explain how the explosion was made , but we would like a comment from National Trust or The Historical Society ? first .

  • Interesting how technology changes over time. As a surveyor in Perth I was required to undertake star and sun observations as part of a surveying degree. The instruments we used were far more advanced than what Mr Cooke used in his day, however nowadays these observations are no longer required due to the invent of GPS. This has made life easier for Land Surveyors.

  • I have read the articles in regard to the 1 o’clock gun. My grandfather was responsible for lighting this from around 1920’s – 1934. I am very concerned that the small structure is still in the grounds and deteriorating from the bore water. There is no protection for it or no plaques so nobody would know what the building is. I have contacted the National Trust over a year ago but had no response. My father lived at the Observatory with his parent, his father was the gardeners and they were both caretakers and cleaned the large building at night.

      • The original link to perthobservatory.wa.gov.au is broken. But the document is now available at physicsmuseum.uq.edu.au/system/storage/serve/33278/obs_history.pdf
        and I have updated the link in the post.

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